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Published February 22, 2024


UB professor examines hardships of student-mothers during COVID

UB faculty member Margaret Sallee conducts pioneering research in the area of student-parents in higher education. She focuses her research on how the culture of universities influences the professional and personal lives of faculty, staff and students, and how gender and other social identities operate within the culture of higher education.

Margaret Sallee.

Margaret Sallee, GSE professor of educational leadership and policy

In her most recent study, Sallee looked at the experience of 22 student-mothers in New York and Georgia, and how they fared during the pandemic. The study also highlighted the importance of strong social networks in supporting student-mothers through academic, social and financial challenges that could otherwise be a barrier to their education.

The study, “The Ties That Bind: Student-Mothers' Social Capital During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” was published in this month’s issue of “The Review of Higher Education,” a publication of Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sallee, a professor of educational leadership and policy, Graduate School of Education, notes that the pandemic caused higher education institutions to close, cutting off support systems for student-parents and low-income members of the community. 

“We wanted to understand how student-mothers navigated the first year of the pandemic, with food insecurity and going to college,” Sallee explains. 

The study, co-authored by UB alumna Alyssa Stefanese Yates, focused on New York, which followed COVID-19 guidelines closely — including remote schooling — and Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp discouraged the public from wearing masks.

“We imagined that their experiences would be really different in New York versus Georgia,” Sallee notes.

Another distinction highlighted in the study is the difference between financial aid in New York and Georgia; Georgia only provides merit-based aid, leaving low-income students without assistance. 

Sallee explains that “bridging forms of social capital,” which helped student-mothers succeed before the pandemic, were not available once classes became remote. “Students who can tap into somebody who is a staff member and can get them access to tutoring are going to do better,” she adds.

The study found that the student-mothers had to rely primarily on what’s called bonding forms of social capital.

“As higher education institutions shut down and students were at home doing Zoom classes, we found that family and friends stepped in to fill the gap in terms of providing all different types of support,” Sallee says. “This is important because usually research on social capital suggests that people are better off by turning to bridging forms of social capital — tapping into different networks (like through a college) to get support. Instead, we found that student-mothers used bonding forms of capital — turning to their internal networks, which were comprised almost entirely of women — and therefore were able to stay enrolled in higher education during the pandemic.

“For example,” she says, “their parents or their siblings, or their friends, are the people who allow them to succeed. They would watch their kids while they did their Zoom classes, or while they studied, and they shared access to food pantries together.”

The study underscores areas where higher education institutions were unable to support student-mothers, who make up 16% of undergraduate student populations in the U.S.

Student-mothers are less likely to earn a degree and more likely to leave higher education than their non-parenting peers, which has long-term effects on their ability to support themselves and their children, Sallee says.

She is also interested in the ways in which faculty, staff and students navigate the demands of work and family, or other life obligations, and the role the university plays in supporting their efforts.

“I would like to see concerted attention to parents on campuses,” Sallee says. “I would love to see SUNY turn their attention to having a student-parent center on every campus and to making sure there is access to affordable child care, to see this become a model of a family-friendly system.”

Sallee points out that there are resources on campus available to student-parents, including the UB Child Care Center, which offers affordable child care at sites on the North and South campuses; the  Early Childhood Research Center in Baldy Hall; and the Blue Table Food Pantry. Students can also utilize Western New York’s food pantry locator.